The Magistrate presiding over Keith Schembri’s money laundering case on Friday said his mobile phones, presented as part of evidence in court, had always been safely kept at the exhibits office.
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech was addressing court after Schembri's lawyers on Monday claimed his right to a fair hearing was breached when his phone - seized by police during financial crimes investigations - disappeared while in the court’s possession. They had said it was found months later with the exhibits of another case.
On Friday she sought to set the record straight on the ‘saga’ during a brief hearing when the case was brought forward on Friday.
She read out a minute explaining that all electronic equipment seized by police under the authorisation of the inquiring magistrate had been examined by forensic digital expert Martin Bajada.
The expert had completed his task and presented a full copy of the data extracted from the devices, consisting of four terabytes of evidence preserved in a hard drive.
That data, together with the expert’s report, was presented in court during a sitting in January. A copy was also handed over to all the parties in the proceedings, including Schembri.
All the electronic equipment, including Schembri’s phones, were physically produced in evidence on July 31, 2023, said the Magistrate, stressing the use of the plural, thus indicating that there was more than one phone belonging to Schembri which had been seized concerning the financial crimes investigation.
Three days later, on August 3, the Magistrate’s deputy registrar handed over those devices to the courts’ exhibits officer for safekeeping.
All exhibits relating to Schembri “remained in the possession and exclusive uninterrupted custody” of that officer, stressed the Magistrate, adding that such a fact could be “easily verified”.
'Other equipment linked to Zenith case'
The issue over the ‘missing’ phone that surfaced after the sitting of October 11, concerned other, unrelated equipment that was exhibited in the case against Zenith directors Matthew Pace and Lorraine Falzon, the Magistrate said.
On Monday, Schembri's lawyers said his phone had somehow ended up in another case file, namely the records of the criminal case against Zenith Finance directors Matthew Pace and Lorraine Falzon, Schembri’s lawyers were told.
But on Friday, the Magistrate said the equipment in the Zenith case was identified by a different exhibit number and had been in the records of those separate proceedings which had been forwarded to the Criminal Court in April.
She did not specify whether this other equipment was a phone.
She said that those exhibits had never been returned to this court and that fact could also easily be confirmed.
Data from those devices had been extracted by another court expert who identified those exhibits before they could be produced as evidence in the case against Schembri, his father and two business associates.
That expert was ordered to attend the next sitting to testify about the facts known and ascertained by him since he was the one who went to the exhibits room to identify the devices which the AG had requested in evidence in Schembri’s case.
Once the Magistrate read out that lengthy minute, defence lawyer Mark Vassallo dictated a brief note pointing out that Friday’s hearing had been “irregularly” called by the court.
In terms of article 401(3)(a) the sitting could not have been set before one month following the previous session and that month lapsed on Saturday.
“So today’s sitting could not take place,” said Vassallo, adding that the defence simply wanted to record that observation in the acts of the case.
Attorney General lawyer Antoine Agius Bonnici rebutted that sittings were sometimes called before the four-week time limit.
“It is for the court to decide when to appoint a hearing and the AG follows court orders.”
The case continues.
AG lawyer Antoine Agius Bonnici prosecuted.
Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo are defence counsel.